This week I talk with Mathilde Collin, Founder of Front. We talk about growing up in France, what inspired her start Front, what business school didn’t teach her, what her experience with Y Combinator was like, early growth tactics and more! Enjoy!
Josh Pigford: All right. Hey, Mathilde, how’s it going?
Mathilde Collin: Good. How are you, Josh?
Josh Pigford: Doing well. Doing well. Thanks for hopping on a call. The way that I like to kind of start these off is getting your backstory, I mean all the way back to you as a kid. You grew up in France, right?
Mathilde Collin: I did. I grew up in France. One of the things that I think struck me as a kid was the fact that I was a happy kid, and no one in my family liked their jobs, and so I think that the reason why I started a company was because I just wanted to create a place where I’d be happy to come to work every day. Hopefully, other people could also join Front and be happy to come to work every day, but I think that’s how this idea of starting a company came from.
Mathilde Collin: Then I grew up in France. I stayed in France my whole life, until four years ago. I went to business school because I didn’t really know what to do next, and then I joined a start-up as soon as I graduated. It was a contract management software. That’s how I discovered the world of softwares, which I really enjoyed. A year after I joined the company, I quit the company to start Front, so I really started Front a year after I graduated.
Mathilde Collin: I’m happy to share more about why I specifically worked on Front if you want to, but you have to tell me what you think is the most interesting to our audience.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s stick to early days for a couple minutes here. You mentioned that you kind of grew up in a family where nobody liked their jobs. Why do you think that was the case? I think of people who keep jobs for a really long time, even if they’re not happy with it. What do you think made you sort of see things from a different perspective?
Mathilde Collin: I guess there is a difference between you go to your job every day and you suffer from it, and your job is okay, and you love your job, and I feel like what I had seen was their job is okay. They are not particularly excited to come to work every Monday morning. They are really looking forward to their vacation. I don’t know why people accept this situation, but I guess it’s because you can still have an awesome life, even if you don’t enjoy 100% of every day at work.
Mathilde Collin: Where I was coming from was I really wanted to enjoy every single minute of my life, and I knew it wouldn’t be possible, but I wanted to try as hard as I could. For eight hours that I would spend every single day at the office, then I really, really cared about them being awesome days every single day. That’s where I came from, and that’s, I think, how I was different from my family.
Mathilde Collin: It’s not cliché to say that I think there are different countries with different expectations for happiness at work, and I do think that when I was a kid in France, maybe people had expectations that were not as high as here in San Francisco.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, yeah. What were you into as a kid? I mean, were you into computers?
Mathilde Collin: No. I was really into sports. I’ve always been very competitive.
Josh Pigford: How did you make the transition? You mentioned once you got out of business school, you kind of got into software. I mean, was that really your first big intro to computers and all that, or, I mean, even as a kid, maybe you were into sports, but were you into computers or software at all then?
Mathilde Collin: No. The first job that I took in a software company was the moment I realized that softwares were exciting to me, and I had no idea I would ever say that one day, but I think the thing that I liked about softwares was the fact that you could build something in just a few month that would really impact how some people were working. At that time, I was working on a contract management software, and I really enjoyed the fact that some people were dealing with contracts all day long in a very archaic way, and now they had this really great tool that would really change their day to day work.
Mathilde Collin: If you remember why I started the company, I care so much about people being happy at work, and so whether it’s by creating a great place to work or by working on a product that would improve their day to day work, that makes me fulfilled. Really, I discovered softwares at that point, and it was unexpected, but I loved it so much that I decided to dedicate the next five years, and probably 50 years, of my life.
Josh Pigford: Sure, sure. The idea of going to business school is interesting to me. You mentioned that you ended up going there, ’cause really weren’t sure what you wanted to do. Do you feel that business school accurately sort of prepared you for starting a company, or was it just sort of, “Okay, great. I’ve got this business degree, but I may not use the things that I learned from it”?
Mathilde Collin: No, I don’t think it prepared me at all. I actually don’t think that there are many things that you can do to be prepared to start a company.
Josh Pigford: Right.
Mathilde Collin: No, I don’t think I learned a ton in order to create a great company, but at least I met great people that helped me along the way.
Josh Pigford: I kind of feel that way about … I went to school. I went for design, which fine, I learned some design stuff, but I feel like the people side tends to, really almost any education, ends up being sort of the bigger takeaway than sort of the things you get from sitting in a classroom.
Mathilde Collin: Yep.
Josh Pigford: You finish up school, started working at the contract management company. What was the impetus for … obviously you knew there were things that you wanted to fix about careers, and wanting people to like their jobs, and being happy at work. What was the catalyst, I guess, for actually jumping from working somewhere to starting your own thing?
Mathilde Collin: I guess it’s always a combination of a lot of different things. One, I wasn’t super happy in my job. Two, I met my cofounder. Three, I met another guy, a French entrepreneur that was willing to fund our company, and at that point, it was a pretty big deal for me because I had a loan, because I had to pay for my school and my school was expensive. So I think the combination of these three things made it possible for me to start Front. That’s why I quit after a year.
Josh Pigford: You have the idea for Front, presumably while you’re still working your previous job. That first version of Front, did you guys launch it before you started at Y Combinator?
Mathilde Collin: We launched it during Y Combinator, but we had a beta version that was available before, so basically, we started in October ’13. At that point, we just had a landing page that explained what’s the premise of Front was. A lot of people would sign up to the waiting list, and one by one we would grant them access, and every single time it was the same thing. They would use the products and then stop using the product after a few minutes. Hundreds of companies did that, and then finally at maybe, I don’t know, six months after we started, we had our first company that stick to it and eventually became a paying customer. Then we joined YC, and we launched during YC.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. For you, what was the biggest takeaway of … You were in YC for a few months. What was sort of the biggest takeaway for you guys from that experience?
Mathilde Collin: Many takeaways. I think the main one is a lot of people expect from YC to give them a lot of magic answers about their business, and I think when you look at the pioneers at YC, they have super impressive backgrounds. The thing for me is my main learning was there is no magic answer to anything about your company. The thing that YC tells you is make something people want, and that’s really the best thing they can tell you, because everything needs to be figured out by you, while keeping in mind that your only goal as a company in the early days is to make sure that you’re working on something that people want. The rest, you have to figure out your own answers, because anyone you would ask, whether it’s YC [inaudible 00:09:58], a customer, an expert of the industry, they will never know your business or your customers or your insights as well as you do. You shouldn’t expect anyone to tell you how you are going to achieve. You have to figure it out, and you have to be very, very honest with yourself in order to find these answers.
Josh Pigford: Obviously YC’s got … there’s a ton of kind of connections you get from that. To me, I almost picture it as, in the same way that business school can’t necessarily teach you how to run your specific company, I kind of view YC as a similar thing with maybe just more specialized and maybe better connections. Was there any correlation for you for the YC experience with school?
Mathilde Collin: No, no. I learned a ton at YC. I think it’s just like there may be ideas that people have about YC that are not true, but I learned so much. Front would never be the same without YC. We would have not raised money with such amazing investors. We would not have hired amazing talents at the beginning when we were French and nobody knew about us. The culture of Front would have been different, because we stayed together for three month in one house, and it was amazing. I wouldn’t say the same at all. I think the [inaudible 00:11:37] is one thing that YC provides, and it’s great, but there are also hundreds of other things that YC provides that are extremely, extremely valuable to the company.
Josh Pigford: Sure. When you guys started, you were in France, you came to YC to do that program, and then ultimately decided to stay in the US. At the point that you guys decided to be a US-based company, how big were you as far as number of team members?
Mathilde Collin: I think probably five or six.
Josh Pigford: Did all five or six of you guys move to the US?
Mathilde Collin: Yeah, and actually, we kept hiring in France, and so we ended up moving 17 people total from France, but yeah. Everyone came. At the beginning it was six people, but then we added more people.
Josh Pigford: What were those conversations like where you’re asking 17, essentially, families to move to the US?
Mathilde Collin: I mean, so first of all, I think after YC, we knew that we would come here. For some of them, the first ones, it was a surprise, but for the following ones, they were expecting it. I don’t know. I feel like I always want them to be happy, so I didn’t force them at all. I said, “Here is why I think it’s best for the company. Here is why I think the company is a great opportunity. Now, if you want to join, you should join. As a company, there is a lot that we can do to make this transition really smooth, but you have to believe that it’s a country you want to live in.” I was super lucky that everyone moved.
Mathilde Collin: I think it impacted a lot how I run the company. I’ve always run the company in a very lean way, because I felt like if a family moved to the US for Front, I owe them to have a sustainable business in the coming years. That was the case since day one, even when we had very few customers, not a lot of funding, and it’s still the case today.
Josh Pigford: Do you consider Front to be … I feel like this is too reductive, but do you consider Front to be a support tool, or do you look at it from a higher level, like there’s this sort of bigger mission behind it than support?
Mathilde Collin: Support is maybe no more than 15% of our use case, so I don’t consider Front to be a support tool. We have a lot of customers who will use Front as a replacement for Zendesk or Desk or Freshdesk because they want a multichannel support tool, because they want a more personal communication, no ticket number. There are a few good reasons why. They want a faster application.
Mathilde Collin: There are few good reasons why people choose Front over Zendesk, but then, I think the real value of Front is to be able to work with multiple teams. We work with success in product teams, sales teams, outcome management teams, et cetera, and I think the real value of Front is to make sure that as your company is growing, information doesn’t get siloed. With the tools that exist today, usually a support team will have a support tool, and then a product team or a sales team will use another tool, whereas there is a lot of value in making sure that your products team or your success team can see what’s happening in support, and your support team can see what’s happening in sales, and et cetera, et cetera.
Mathilde Collin: We have a horizontal product, and it’s the main value proposition of Front, so even if we always start with one team using the product in one company, then from there, we learn and expand.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. For you guys, what’s sort of the biggest hurdle for getting companies to convert from trial to being a successful Front user?
Mathilde Collin: Email is very core to how people work, and so when you change something that that’s critical, it requires a lot of education, and so I think change management is the biggest thing that we need to work on.
Josh Pigford: You mentioned basically educating users as part of that. How do you guys solve the education component?
Mathilde Collin: There are human ways, so you have human beings that will help our customers, and then you can create a lot of content, and you can work a lot on in-product explanations to make sure that people understand how to transition from their old workflow to the new workflow.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. I read an article that you wrote. Actually, I think it might be kind of old at this point, about all the pricing experiments. At the time, you wrote how you guys were doing pricing tests essentially every three weeks or something like that. Are you guys still doing pricing tests that often?
Mathilde Collin: Yeah. I think we’re releasing one this week. Yeah, I feel like it’s super, super hard to find a pricing that works for everyone.
Josh Pigford: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mathilde Collin: We have thousands of companies that use the product, and so it’s incredibly hard to find a price that’s fair for any size of company, any kind of team, and yet it’s critical to the business. The best way that we’ve found to find a fair price is to iterate as quickly as possible, and to make sure that it doesn’t affect our customer base. We just launch an experiment, and for this cohort, they will see a price point that they will keep their entire life, and that way, if three weeks after that, we release a new pricing point, then only the new users will be affected by it, but not the old ones.
Josh Pigford: That’s super smart, because I mean, I think the biggest roadblock that a lot of companies have for price testing is the idea that they’re gonna have to grandfather users forever. But I mean, if you’re testing new price sort of systems and setups every few weeks, you don’t run the risk of a massive cohort of people being on this pricing plan that could actually be detrimental to your business because you’ve changed it so frequently.
Mathilde Collin: Yeah. Exactly.
Josh Pigford: After doing these big price tests for a while, what are maybe a couple of the biggest wins that you’ve had from some of those tests?
Mathilde Collin: Actually, it’s a tough question to answer. I think the biggest win was to invest early on in an infrastructure that would allow us for experimentations. I think it’s a pretty big deal because when you’re a young company, you know that every feature that you ship will have a good impact on your business, and so you often invest more resources in customer-facing features. You don’t spend a lot of resources on infrastructure and making sure that you can improve something like pricing. I think the bigger thing that we learned was the fact that it was worth dedicating three weeks of engineering time into experimenting with your pricing, but there is nothing that we really discovered during these pricing experiments. It’s more like you have to … Even today, I can’t tell you if the pricing point that we have today is great, and I actually know that it’s not great, because I learn every time we release a new experiment that we can still [inaudible 00:19:34] and that’s the biggest value that we get.
Josh Pigford: Yeah. For you guys in the early days, what was maybe the most unusual thing that you tried or tested to get traction?
Mathilde Collin: On that, there are a few things. One, the thing that worked the best for us was content, and so it’s not [originatal 00:19:58]. I often feel like people are looking for ways to get new users on your companies, and they’re looking at what other companies have done, and they try to replicate what other companies have done. What I’ve felt like is if … you know how a lot of people talk about growth hacking. You want to find this growth hack that will allow you to scale your lead generation, and so you’re looking at what other people have done. You try to do the same.
Mathilde Collin: For us, what worked best was … everything that worked really well for lead generation were things very unique to our business. For example, one of the thing that, so [inaudible 00:20:42] made shared inboxes, and shared inboxes are public on the web, so if you look at on the website and you look at the contact page, usually you can find firstname.lastname@example.org. So one of the thing that we did early on was when we found a use case that was really great for us, so for example, we found that, I don’t know, billing@ was a great email address to be managed in Front. The size of company that was great was between 10 employees and 100 employees, and so what we built was a tool to help us find the billing@ address of companies that are between 10 and 100 employees, and then we just sent one email on this email address saying, “Here is how you manage your billing@ address today, and here is how it would be different if you were managing it on Front.” That’s something that we did that’s worked really well.
Mathilde Collin: Another thing that we did was we were doing an email tool, and I had a library of emails that I had been gathering for the past three years about companies reaching out to say, “Apologies for the downtime,” or, “Thank you for subscribing,” or, “Here are our new features.” You always receive so many emails. One day, I decided to publish it, and I built a mini website called Good Email Copy, and then it was seen millions of times, and people that were going on the website could see that it was created by Front, so it generated a ton of inbound leads.
Mathilde Collin: But these two things were very specific to us and the email company that we started, and I always feel like if you want to find anything original for your lead gen, you have to really think deeply about what’s unique about your business, and what are the thing that you could capitalize on that no one has been able to capitalize on? The rest was super standard. It was mainly contact marketing for the first two years.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. Yeah. The sort of cold emailing these catchall email addresses is fantastic. What’s a topic that when somebody asks you about it, you get really excited? For me, it’s autonomous cars or robots and things like that. What’s a topic for you that you can just geek out over?
Mathilde Collin: There are many. From a professional standpoint, I really like the topic of transparency, and I know that you do, too, so we can talk about that if you want.
Josh Pigford: Yeah. I think that is a good point. You’ve written a lot about being transparent. One of the more unique things that I’ve seen you guys do from the transparency standpoint is your public roadmap, which you’ve had for a while, and I’m curious what are some of the pros and cons that you’ve found from being public with basically what you’re building in the future?
Mathilde Collin: The pros are the fact that your communities of customers and employees is they’ll trust you. The pros are the fact that you can make product decisions that are informed by more data than if you didn’t have a public roadmap, because people can vote for all the features that they want. You’d be surprised, too, how many … I think probably 98% of people that I interview will mention the public roadmap as a sign that the company is healthy and has a great culture. I didn’t do that for that purpose, but it worked really well.
Mathilde Collin: The cons, there are not many. It takes time to update it, but really, everyone is always telling me, “Your competitors will be able to see what you plan on doing.” I don’t believe that’s true. I’m happy to tell everyone what’s the longer term vision of Front is. I think the real deal is executing on it, and even when you write, “Oh, this is the feature that we’ll build,” and there are a million different ways to build this feature, and the key is to make sure that you build it in the right way, you prioritize it in the right way, [inaudible 00:24:52]. I actually don’t think that there are many cons, except for the fact that it takes some time to update it on a weekly basis.
Josh Pigford: Sure. Sure. What’s the next year look like for you guys? A year in the world of start-ups can be a lifetime, but yeah, what do you sort of see being kind of big changes or shifts or things that you guys will be working on for the next 12 months?
Mathilde Collin: First of all, we’re opening a French office, so we’re going back to France. We started this office in January, so two month ago, so that’s very new to us, and I’m excited to see how we’re going to expand our engineering team and sales team and support teams over there. From a product standpoint, we’ll have a major product announcement at the beginning of Q3, so in July. I’m excited about that, and then we’ll just keep growing, and I think it brings a source of fun and challenges at the same time, so every day is always new. We’ll see what it brings.
Josh Pigford: Sure. Opening an office in France, so what was sort of the big reason for that? Was it just to basically to have access to additional talent that was harder to find in the US?
Mathilde Collin: 50% of our users are not in the US, and so for us, being able to support them in France, so in Europe, was important. Then, I think, having engineers in France was also great, because one, yes, you have a lot of talents and that’s great, but also it enable your engineering team in San Francisco to have a better work-life balance, which is good as well. I think the decision was a combination of these two reasons.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. That makes sense. I think that’s all I’ve got. How can people get in touch with you?
Mathilde Collin: They can send me an email, Mathilde, my first name @front at .com, or Twitter, or anything.
Josh Pigford: Good deal. Well, hey, thanks for hopping on a call, Mathilde.
Mathilde Collin: Thank you so much, Josh.